Habitat For Humanity

Yesterday my wife and I volunteered to help out Habitat For Humanity with some of her coworkers. It was pretty much awesome for several reasons.

Number one, I like working on stuff with my hands. I am a decent carpenter and yesterday, I cut and built the moldings around the front and rear doors, as well as cut and installed the baseboards in the whole house. It gives me a sense of accomplishment to be able to do something with my hands, but to be able to do that for someone else really makes me feel like I spent my time well. Plus, home improvement is great exercise, as is pretty much any time spent off the couch!

Number two, H4H is a pretty cool organization. There is a misconception that they simply give away homes to people that cannot afford them. Not true. What they do is get the initial money for materials/lots from donors, and then build the house using mostly volunteer labor (i.e., us!). Then the person getting the house has to be employed for two years, make under a certain amount of money, live in less than good living conditions (the woman whose home we worked on shared a bedroom with her toddler son in her parents’ house, who were also working on the build), and be able to make the payments on a 0% interest mortgage. So when they get the keys, they are in fact paying a mortgage. They are just not paying interest to a bank, but only the principle. The recipients also have to attend classes AND must help out with the build whenever they can. It’s a great system, and one that has worked all across the country for many many people who otherwise might not ever get the chance to be homeowners.

Number three, it’s just fun to work with friends and family and get a sense of accomplishment that not only did you get to hang out and get dirty with people you like, but it actually helped someone. And really, would you have done anything better with your Saturday anyway? We wouldn’t have.

Check it out and volunteer at Habitat For Humanity’s website. You won’t regret it, and no experience necessary.

New Routines

So recently I switched back to a whole-body-based weightlifting routine, and ditched my cyclical ketogenic diet. Let me explain…

First, I am not a competitive bodybuilder. It’s cool, and I admire the drive and willpower, but it ain’t me. I want to use my strength for doing things, not just standing on stage trying to look better than other folks. Now, I’m not saying that bodybuilders are weaklings or vain or stupid: far from it! I totally admire the dedication it takes to be successful in that arena. But I AM saying that their goals and mine are not the same. I am looking mainly for good exercise, fat loss and athletic performance. They are looking to shape and sculpt every square inch of their bodies to some Atlas idea of perfection. Two different worlds.

The car analogy works well here. Do I want to be a show car or a race car? Show cars can be fast and agile, but their main function is just that: show. Look great, be shiny, be the ideal. Race cars, on the other hand, they perform. Sure, they look good too, and for my money, a well-tuned and sorted out race car or performance car will ALWAYS be more desirable than one made of plastic, Bondo and a $25K paint job, but that’s just me. I want to be the well-sorted-out race car that is capable of top performance, not just looking good standing still. And I believe that the real beauty in something comes from the degree of no-frills functionality embodied therein.

So anyway, I switched back. I started out with a full-body routine mostly using compound exercises just to get to a baseline of strength and fitness that I’d been lacking due to missing the gym for, oh, 5 years or so. Once I got about 6 months of that under my belt, I was doing a 3-day split (pushing, pulling, legs) routine that really added strength and mass very quickly. But it wasn’t really great as a calorie burner, even using mostly compound movements. I tried adding interval cardio (mostly elliptical) into the routine, but I found myself overtraining and simply gassed at the end of the week. During this time, I also switched to a cyclical ketogenic diet. This lo-carb approach consists of a lo/no-carb diet throughout the week, then a 24-36 hr refeed which supposedly pushes glycogen back into the muscles. Except it really didn’t seem to work that way for me. I’d be fine at the beginning of the week, and then by the end of the week, I would barely be able to get through the second rep cycle of anything. Also, by the evenings I was just shot, and on the weekends I didn’t really want to do much. I just couldn’t seem to refeed enough to make it work all week. Can’t live like that.

So I went back to a mostly primal and natural diet – still lo-carb (~100 grams per day or less, loaded more toward the morning when I work out) but much more agreeable to 3 days of heavy full-body circuit lifting per week plus 3 days of cardio interval training and sports (skating, biking, etc.).  Since switching both my diet and weightlifting routine, I’m still dropping about 2 lbs per week, but amazingly, my strength is going up as I’m not gassing myself halfway through my routines anymore due to lack of fuel for my muscles, not to mention better post-workout recovery. It also allows me the stamina to add in cardio, which is really what I need to get rid of the fat. I dropped about 15 pounds in the last 3 months, and I intend to lose 20 more by July 1. That will put me at 185-190, which for me is about 12-15% bodyfat. It also allows me the energy I need to work around the house, hike, camp, work on the cars, and whatever else we do on weekends, rather than simply recovering.

Much better!

Motivation

Motivation is usually not a tough thing for most people, including me. At least not at first. We all get fired up to make changes, to change EVERYTHING all at once and we try to attack the 19-headed beast that is our life. And right there is the problem. Most people simply do not have the attention span bandwidth or multi-tasking abilities to do it this way. In addition, when we aren’t taking care of ourselves, depression and illness can make it that much harder for us to get motivated and even sometimes to care in the first place. And that’s exactly what I use to keep me motivated.

When I am not motivated, it’s a big red flag for me that I need to get off my rearend and work out or go for a walk or build something.  In short, when I feel the worst I can possibly feel, that’s what motivates me to move and to eat right – because I can’t bear another moment of feeling so crappy that I can’t move. Everybody falls off the wagon now and again. It’s human nature to fall short of the lofty goals and aspirations we set for ourselves. What separates success from failure is what one does after a setback. If you examine most successful people and how they managed to succeed, it’s not that none of them never failed at anything. Quite the contrary, in fact. You will find in almost every single case that very few people ever succeeded at something the very first time they tried it. That’s not to knock natural talent or to say it never happens, but for most people, it’s about the process and the work they put into it. The difference then, is NOT not falling off the wagon, but just standing up, dusting yourself off and regaining your composure, figuring out what caused the fall, and then getting back on the wagon for the ride toward your goal.

For me, this happens somewhat more frequently than perhaps I’d like to admit. I love crappy food, just like everybody else, probably more than most.  But it destroys my mind. My body tends to be a bit more resilient to junk food’s effects, but my mind is pretty fragile when it comes to “Garbage Cuisine,” as I like to call it. It starts when I feel good and have been eating well and working out. Then I will have a couple light beers with dinner, then the next day have a couple more and add a frozen pizza to the mix. Then I will stop at some greasy drive-thru the following day, and before I know it, my body is achy, my mind is cloudy, I don’t want to move, haven’t gone to the gym because I feel too lousy to get out of bed at 5 am, and I’m sick because I’m feasting on Garbage Cuisine. Never fails – this is the pattern pretty much every single time.

Regaining my composure then is just forcing myself to do one thing differently when I’m in that rut. Sometimes it’s just making myself strap on my skates or build something. Sometimes it’s going out to the garage and changing the oil or rotating the tires on one of our cars. Sometimes it’s actually dragging myself to the gym, although I rarely start there. But whatever it is, it creates enough of an improvement in how I’m thinking that my body follows suit and feels better too. And with my mind and body clear once again, it becomes very simple for me to get back on track. I usually try to grocery shop at these on-track times too. When I do, my cart is full of fresh fruits and veggies, nuts and lean meats, and very little else. When I go at other times, it’s frozen pizza, ice cream and other crap that I shouldn’t eat. And that’s just a waste of money.

Your brain and body are like a Ferrari. Would you fuel it with high-octane gas like the manufacturer recommends? Or would you dump used motor oil and sugar in the tank and expect it to run right? The latter sounds absolutely ridiculous to pretty much anybody who knows anything at all about fine autos, and yet this is exactly what most of us do to ourselves. We dump crap into our fuel tanks and then wonder why we aren’t running right. And sometimes, that “not running right” feeling is just the motivation we need to refuel and exercise with what we know works best – sticking to the “Bag/Box/Wrapper Rule and throwing Garbage Cuisine in the can where it belongs rather than down the hatch.

Fixing My Fuel Part 2

I had been searching for another doctor since it seemed time to give getting better another go. On a friend’s recommendation, I set up an appointment and went to see a new psychiatrist. I thought maybe he’d know of some new pill that might work better for me. After about a half hour of talking and listening to me explain my past and my present, he told me I didn’t need pills. He showed me some lamps in a magazine and told me to buy a sun lamp, which I sort of dismissed. He then said something that I remember to this day and has basically been the basis of my coping mechanism since: “Take a serious look at what you are eating. If you are putting garbage into your body, that’s all your body and brain have to work with, and eventually that’s what they will turn into. If it (food) comes in a bag, a box or a wrapper, don’t put it in your body. If you get serious about this for 6 months and come see me then, you’ll be a different person.”

Guess what? He nailed it. I never even went back, he was so right.

I took his advice. I cut out all the processed food I had been eating. I cooked meat and eggs and ate cheese. I had fresh salads, nuts and fruit instead of other snacks. And at the end of just one week, my head cleared and my body started to feel so much better. At the end of a month, all the weight I had gained on medication was gone – 10 pounds, gone just like that. And I kept it up for a good long time.

But then things in my life changed – I began working far away and commuting long distances. I started hanging out with people who drank a lot and ate crap, so that’s what I began doing again. Then I married into a wonderful Italian family. The food at my in-laws was delicious, but not at all what worked with my system. The funny thing was that these people ate this stuff their entire lives and were thin and healthy. But it didn’t work with my system. I also drank a lot by their pool and in front of their TV, which didn’t help either. Then my wife and I had a baby, and on top of my lousy nutritional habits, I stopped getting regular sleep. All of this combined to up my stress levels even higher than they were. I’m certain my cortisol levels were through the roof. I also even began to smoke again to cope.

I found myself having slid back into that nutritional swamp again, with the added issue of smoking again. As I was now over 30, this translated into easy weight gain. I bulked up to about 220 pounds, which was the heaviest I’d ever been. And it was not a muscular 220; it was a fat and sloppy 220. I did manage to quit smoking though. So there I was, 220, fat, tired, stressed out.

I had enough. I cut out mostly anything made of or with yeast, flour, added sugar, preservatives and other garbage. I resigned to eating only foods that came to me with the minimum amount of processing to transport them from production to me. I eat natural/organic meats when possible, mostly chicken. I eat loads of fatty fish. I try to stay away from pork due to the disgusting nature of factory pork farming, and try to limit my red meat intake to grass-fed and organic beef and if that’s not possible, lower-fat cuts. I freely eat anything that grows from plants – tree nuts, fruit, vegetables. I eat some dairy, but have seemingly developed some sensitivity to it, which most adults do by my age. And when you think about it, is it really normal that as Americans, we continue to nurse in adulthood, but in addition, nurse from another animal?

I had read about this diet before in many forms. It goes by many names and is the basis for lots of different types of popular low-carb diets. But the important thing for me is that I know it works for me. You may have to tinker with it to find what particular foods work and don’t for you. But the gist of it is exactly the advice my doc gave me years ago – if man’s hands touched a food more than to simply put it in some container, don’t put it in your body because it’s garbage for the most part. By default, that rules out most of what you see in the interior of any large grocery store. Now, I’m not saying to not take supplements or modern medicines or whatever else your doctor orders. I’m no doctor, and you need to make absolutely certain you consult with your doctor before embarking on any diet or exercise change as radical as this is for most people. But I am a guy who has been very nutritionally sensitive his entire life and knows what works and doesn’t work for me. I have tried low-fat diets. I’ve cut calories down to levels under 1500 per day and done cardio exercise for an hour per day 6 days a week. You know what that gets me? Tired, sick, and so pissed off at health and fitness that I quit caring, go back to beer and pizza and then I end up fatter and more depressed than I was. And then I stop moving altogether, sit on the couch and get more depressed and almost invariably end up with colds or other sicknesses because my immune system, taking its cues from me, quits too. Which brings me to motivation…

…Next time!

Fixing My Fuel Part 1

It is an interesting thing when you realize that you are making yourself sick, that a doctor told you this a long time ago, and that finally after being mostly sick for 10 or 15 years, you are going to finally do the very simple and easy things your doctor told you to do 15 years ago to make yourself better without drugs or, truth be told, very little effort.

15 years ago, I had a depression issue. Still do sometimes. It’s funny too – not depression, but that I am prone to it. I have a beautiful wife and son, great family, great friends who try to stay in touch as best as we all can. I have a good job and make great money these days too – me and my family want for very little at all. I was always a happy kid according to my parents.  I am about 6 feet tall, not bad looking (not nearly Brad Pitt or Denzel or whatever male lead you like either, but certainly serviceable), and tend toward fairly easy muscle gains and athleticism. I am of at least average intelligence, remember pretty much anything I read or look at once, and can recall obscure facts at will. I had lots of friends (still do, although most of them are on the other coast now due to a recent move way West). I had a couple of nice doggies and my own apartment for most of college. I had a great job – didn’t pay much, but then I didn’t need much either. I had a good social life, played in a couple bands, hung out and did a lot of the same things most happy people in their early 20s do – study a little bit, work, beach, party, travel a little, etc. But I never felt good.

I felt okay most of the time. But never really good. Probably a lot of this had to do with the fact I smoked regularly, usually between half a pack and a pack a day of lights. I probably drank too much too, but generally couldn’t afford to overdo it mostly. I also never really had more than one or two terrible hangovers, and most of those crappy feelings could be traced directly to the cigarettes and not really the booze so much. But a lot of it DID have to do with flour.

Flour???

I have always had some weird problem with flour and sugar, and I’ve noticed it from a young age. When I was a kid, we ate meat, veggies and fruit, some bread – like one sandwich/two piece per day at most, and not much else. Junk food was a big no-no in my house (except for the occasional Tasty-Kake box – it’s a PA thing), and we almost never drank soda. We grew our own food in a garden, and my mom canned it for the winter. We ate very healthy food, and I’m convinced that this diet allowed me and my brother both to enter gifted programs in early elementary school, prevented us both from ever having cavities or broken bones, and contributed in a big way to how we turned out academically and intellectually. We both entered kindergarten knowing how to read, and he even entered a little earlier than he should have because he was cognitively ready. Then in middle and high school, I started staying at friends’ houses on the weekends and eating less and less of this good stuff, and more crap. Around this time, my parents also divorced, which meant weekdays with dad were pretty under control diet-wise, but we asked for Chinese take-out and pizza at mom’s, which is what we ate there. Kind of funny in a way, because she still ate healthy and made that available; we just made other choices and she indulged probably to make sure that she felt she was providing what we wanted after the divorce. Then I went to college and it was even more downhill – due to budgetary constraints, I ate lots of boxed mac and cheese, pizza, subs, frozen microwavable crap, and a bunch of other garbage that has no real counterpart in the natural food world. So I got sick.

I got sick a lot. I got lots of colds and stuff, but I also got mentally ill. Depression was a major issue for me at this age, and also some anxiety that would manifest itself in various ways. I bounced from doctor to doctor, but they all just wanted to talk about it and throw a pill at it and then tell me to get more exercise. Here’s the thing about that: I walked to class, walked to work, walked my dogs after work, and then walked to whatever I was doing in the evenings. I walked probably 2 hours per day. I generally weightlifted 2-3 times per week most weeks, I skated and played hockey in the parking lot in front of my apartment, I hiked and biked and swam on the weekends, and I really couldn’t figure out how to get in any more exercise. I exercised on average 2 or 3 hours PER DAY because all of the things I liked or had to do relied on it. So I knew that wasn’t the issue, and there had to be another issue. I found out there was some depression in my family, and some substance abuse issues as well, so for the time being, I chalked it up to faulty wiring that I couldn’t do anything about. So I resigned myself to the pills and that was it.

But I didn’t get better. I got worse.

Anti-depressives made me feel worse. I got weird motion sensations and little shocks and tingles I never had before in my extremities. I gained weight and became tired and lethargic all the time, which makes it a lot harder to stay active and even harder to feel good. My head became cloudy and muddy, and I had mood swings worse than when I was just depressed (like a lot of men, my depression wasn’t so much sadness as it was anger and constant fatigue). So I quit those and decided to go it alone.

Then I met the doctor who really changed my life. More on him next post.

Back To The Gym…

So this week I started going back to the gym seriously after some longterm sickness in my family and other things. It’s not a big deal – I am not a bodybuilder, don’t really have too many issues with how I look or feel (other than feeling out of shape, of course). I don’t think I look weak or small, nothing like that. I like being active and I like using my body a lot to do lits of things – I go offroading in a Jeep I built, camp, play music (drums and guitar), like to wrench on our cars, mountain bike, hike, etc. I am lucky in that I have a mesomorph body type – I am in fact a true mesomorph. My body stays at a steady weight pretty much regardless of what I do to it, I gain muscle and strength very easily, and don’t lose it very easily. What happens to me is that because of my natural tendencies, I tend to neglect myself because I can without a lot of consequence. I tend to have a few too many beers on the weekends or during hockey season, a few too many desserts on holidays, and a few too many second helpings at my Italian in-laws, and before I know it (in this case, gradually over a 3 year span), my steady weight point has been pushed up by 25 pounds. It also doesn’t help that until recently, my wife and I lived somewhere that was very difficult to be outside except in the few summer months. Oh, and I also quit smoking 2 years ago too. I’m sure that didn’t help my weight, although it certainly helped my health.

We used to live in a tiny little house in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. I bought the house about a year out of college when it was just me and two dogs. It was a cabin basically, 750 sq. ft. and 2 beds/1 bath. It’s no problem when it’s just one person, but add a wife and a baby, and things get crowded fast. Add to that lousy weather 7 or 8 months per year (cold, rain/ice/snow storms several times every single week, constant mud, etc.) and no space for exercise equipment except in our unheated detached garage, and it’s pretty easy to figure out how easy it is to become unmotivated to remain physically active.

The moral here is this: take care of your body. It’s the only possession you have that cannot be taken from you until death!